Genetically Engineered Food: An Overview
Since the 1996 introduction of genetically engineered crops — crops that are altered with inserted genetic material to exhibit a desired trait — U.S. agribusiness and policymakers have embraced biotechnology as a silver bullet for the food system. The industry promotes biotechnology as an environmentally responsible, profitable way for farmers to feed a growing global population. But despite all the hype, genetically engineered plants and animals do not perform better than their traditional counterparts, and they raise a slew of health, environmental and ethical concerns.
The next wave of the “Green Revolution” promises increased technology to ensure food security and mitigate the effects of climate change, but it has not delivered. The only people who are experiencing security are the few, massive corporations that are controlling the food system at every step and seeing large profit margins.
Additionally, a lack of responsibility, collaboration or organization from three U.S. federal agencies — the Food & Drug Administration (FDA), U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) — has put human and environmental health at risk through inadequate review of genetically engineered (GE) foods, a lack of post-market oversight that has led to various cases of unintentional food contamination and to a failure to require labeling of these foods. Organic farming, which does not allow the use of GE, has been shown to be safer and more effective than using modified seed. Moreover, public opinion surveys indicate that people prefer food that has not been manipulated or at least want to know whether food has been modified.
A Background on Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology
Biotechnology involves manipulating the genetic makeup of plants or animals to create new organisms. Proponents of the technology contend that these alterations are improvements because they add new desirable traits. Yet this manipulation may have considerable unintended consequences. Genetic engineering uses recombinant DNA technology to transfer genetic material from one organism to another to produce plants, animals, enzymes, drugs and vaccines.
GE crops became commercially available in the United States in 1996 and now constitute the vast majority of corn, cotton and soybean crops grown in the country. More recently, biotechnology firms have developed genetically engineered animals, including food animals such as hogs and salmon.
Genetic engineering modifies the genetic material of crops to display specific traits. Most commercial biotech crops are developed to be either herbicide tolerant, allowing herbicides to kill weeds without harming crops, or insect resistant, which protects plants from destructive pests. Although biotech firms have long promised additional traits such as high-yielding and drought-resistant GE seeds, to date these products are not commercially available.
Farmers have bred their best livestock and saved seeds from their most productive crops for thousands of years. Selective crop breeding was accelerated by the development of crop hybridization, which cross-bred plants that had desirable traits and helped reverse the stagnating corn yields of the 1930s. By 1960, 95 percent of U.S. corn acreage was cultivated with hybrid seed.
Biotechnology has challenged traditional breeding methods for desirable crop and livestock traits. Hybrid seeds were bred within the same plant species until the discovery of the human genome in the 1950s. This breakthrough spurred the development of genetic engineering techniques, which allow breeders to splice genes from very different species. Genetic engineering can insert a specific gene from any plant, animal or microorganism into the DNA of a host organism of a different species. One GE tomato even used a fish gene to make the tomato frost-resistant. However, splicing different organisms together could pose risks to consumers that have allergies to the added traits — in this case, consumers with seafood allergies could be exposed inadvertently to an allergen in the tomato.
In 2010, more than 365 million acres of GE crops were cultivated in 29 countries — representing 10 percent of global cropland.
The United States is the world leader in GE crop production, with 165 million acres, or nearly half of global production. U.S. GE cultivation grew rapidly from only 7 percent of soybean acres and 1 percent of corn acres in 1996, to 94 percent of soybean and 88 percent of corn acres in 2011.
Inserting desirable genetic traits from one organism into the embryo of another produces so-called “transgenic” animals. Additionally, the technology of cloning creates artificially reproduced plants or animals that identically replicate the original animal without DNA modification. In the United States, cloning is used primarily to produce rodeo bulls and other non-food animals, but several hundred cloned food animals also are believed to exist in the country. Today, cloning primarily duplicates conventional livestock animals, but in the future could be used to copy transgenic animals. Cloning could be used to replicate livestock that have superior meat or milk yields or to mass-produce animals with marketable traits such as lower cholesterol or fat content. Although no meat or milk in the United States has been disclosed as coming from clones, cloned animals undoubtedly already have entered the food supply.
Transgenic animals have been developed to promote faster growth, disease resistance or leaner meat, as well as to minimize the impact of animal waste. By 2004, the largest biotech firms had filed 12 patents for GE animals. As of this writing, no transgenic food animals had been approved in the United States, although some animal-derived products, such as pharmaceuticals, had been approved. The USDA National Organic Program prohibits GE crops to be utilized in certified organic crops for food and animal feed.